One of the hotter topics in California educational circles in the past decade has been bilingual education. One thing that is clear, as school board members in several Orange County communities have learned, is that if there are attempts to change the bilingual program, parents and teachers must be kept informed every step of the way.
Attempts by the California Legislature to overhaul bilingual education have failed six times in the past nine years. Many critics of the current program say it takes too long to get students fluent in English and too few ever do attain that standard. The critics push for “immersion,” teaching students in English even when they have heard only another language, usually Spanish, at home from birth until they enter the schoolhouse door.
There is no difference in the goal of bilingual education or immersion: getting students fluent in English as quickly as possible. The quarrel is over how to reach the goal.
Supporters of bilingual education say immersion puts students in classes they cannot understand. Most existing bilingual programs begin in kindergarten and last through second grade. Those backing the program say that without it, pupils would never get the solid educational foundation needed to succeed in higher grades.
A handful of school districts in Orange County have applied for, and some have received, waivers from the state to let them revamp their bilingual education programs. What is crucial if changes are made is not substituting one problematic program for another; students will need help and testing will be required to learn what works.
The superintendent of the Magnolia School District in Anaheim, Paul S. Mercier, said that years ago students there were succeeding in a total English immersion program. But the state required changes that the district believed hurt the effort, such as more bilingual instructional materials and demanding more bilingual teachers.
With Magnolia’s waiver, bilingual teaching aides are in classes, helping students preview and review lessons. Mercier said extensive use of charts, maps and visual aids also helps in the teaching. The Magnolia waiver is good for two years. The superintendent said the district gave students a standardized test at the start of the year and will test again at the end of the year. Teachers keep records as well. That’s smart. Research on bilingual education has not provided clear conclusions as yet. The more information, the better.
Two months ago, an Anaheim City School District proposal to reduce the bilingual education program drew a turnout of more than 150 people. That demonstrates the interest in the issue in the community. The district is considering offering parents an option of bilingual education or English-only for their children. That is probably wise, reflecting the division among Latino parents over which educational method works best for their children and a further division among bilingual education supporters over how long the classes should last.
The Orange Unified school board also voted in January to explore ending bilingual education, which would mostly affect about 1,200 Spanish-speaking pupils. District officials said they have nearly 7,000 students–who speak 39 languages–who are also in some type of program for those with limited proficiency in English.
One proposal under consideration in Orange is teaching academic classes only in English and providing special classes on the language itself after school and during the summer.
The district, no stranger to controversy over the years for a host of items including its proposal to end school counseling programs, should hold a number of public meetings before implementing any changes in bilingual education.
Latino activists complained they were caught unawares when the district voted to hire consultants to prepare a bilingual education waiver. More communication, more meetings, more debate can help remove that sort of complaint. With such a hot-button issue, it is unlikely everyone will be pleased with whatever the board decides. But all sides deserve their say and must be heard.